US Marine Corps lieutenants Tom Grayson (Lee Powell) and Frank Corby (Herman Brix), the Fighting Devil Dogs of the title, are assigned to evacuate American citizens from the Chinese province of “Lingchuria” during the Sino-Japanese war. En route, the two officers and their detachment stumble across an abandoned Lingchurian fort full of unmarked but very dead soldiers; while investigating the cause of the massacre, almost all of the Marines are wiped out by the same weapon that killed the fort’s garrison–an electrical aerial torpedo. Tom and Frank are the only survivors, and on their return to America, Tom–as the senior lieutenant–is court-martialed for negligence; he appeals to electrical expert and noted scientist Ben Warfield (Hugh Sothern) for help in proving his disbelieved story of the aerial torpedo. Warfield quickly puts together a research team that includes Tom’s father Colonel Grayson, but their investigations into the mysterious weapon’s origins bring the wrath of its inventor–a mystery man called the Lightning–down on them. Colonel Grayson is soon killed in another torpedo attack, which proves Tom’s story but leaves the hero grimly determined to track down the Lightning–who is equally determined to subjugate the world through the power of electricity.
The Fighting Devil Dogs immediately followed The Lone Ranger, an unusually high-budgeted serial, on Republic’s release schedule; in order to make up for Ranger expenditures, the serial production team cut every possible budgetary corner when filming Devil Dogs–making heavy use of stock footage from earlier serials, utilizing two “economy” chapters (that is, episodes made up of flashbacks to previous scenes), and eschewing most of the location shooting that characterized other Republics from the period. However, while the Republic crew spared no pains to make Devil Dogs economical, they also took great pains to make the serial entertaining: its plotting is strong, its action scenes satisfactory, and its direction, camerawork, and special effects outstanding.
Directors William Witney and John English and cinematographer William Nobles deserve plenty of credit for the skill with which they set the ominous, horror-movie mood that pervades much of Devil Dogs; they stage most of the serial’s action at night and pepper both action and dialogue scenes with striking, shadowy shots–their work ideally underscored by Alberto Colombo’s dramatic and intense music. Writers Barry Shipman, Sol Shor, Franklin Adreon, and Ronald Davidson also play a major part in making Devil Dogs unusually eerie; the finding of the stricken, corpse-filled fort (complete with mysteriously dead flies and a strange electric smell in the air) and the Lightning’s subsequent strike on the Marines makes for one of the scariest and most arresting openings in the history of serials.
Shipman and his fellow-writers also give Devil Dogs an unusually linear storyline, avoiding the loosely-connected capers that formed the basis of the action in the contemporary Dick Tracy serials. After the Lightning’s power is established by his trial-run attack in Lingchuria and his later assault on a ship, the plot resolves itself into one long and sequential investigation of the Lightning’s supply source (the steel mill that manufactures his torpedo casings), base (on the Pacific island of Gehorda), and secret identity. Thanks to the previous demonstrations of the villain’s power, this investigation takes on a desperately urgent tone throughout, with the Marines racing against time to destroy the Lightning’s logistical support system and unravel the scientific secrets of his weaponry before he’s ready to wage war on a world-threatening scale.
The script is not only well-plotted and well-paced, but also handles the mystery-villain angle with far more finesse than usual in a serial. While the writers should have provided more red-herring characters (there’s only three here, all too obviously suspicious) to make the Lightning’s final exposure a greater surprise, they deserve commendation for choosing a culprit whose unmasking makes so much logical sense and so neatly mends several apparent plot holes from earlier episodes. Most of the serial genre’s unmasked mystery villains are either randomly chosen from an interchangeable assortment of suspects or revealed to be the only completely innocuous character in the serial (even if said character has been seen with the masked villain in earlier episodes); Devil Dogs is one of the few chapterplays in which the revelation of the heavy’s secret identity has the audience saying “Of course! That explains everything!” instead of “Which guy is that?” or “But that makes no sense!”
David Sharpe had not yet joined the Republic stunt team in 1938, which means Fighting Devil Dogs’ action scenes lack the graceful acrobatics that he would bring to later outings like Mysterious Doctor Satan; the fights are also somewhat less carefully choreographed than in Witney and English’s 1940s serials. The action is still good, however, if unpolished, with Eddie Parker (doubling Lee Powell), George DeNormand (doubling Herman Brix), Duke Green, Tom Steele, Joe Yrigoyen, and other stuntmen giving the fight scenes plenty of energy and several good leaps, falls, and flips–the Chapter Two warehouse fight (begun by Parker’s nifty rope-climb to a second-floor window), the Chapter Five fight in a dockyard storage building, and the Chapter Ten cave fight being particular standouts.
Above left: Eddie Parker flips a fellow-stuntman (probably Duke Green) through the air during the Chapter Ten fight. Above right: Lee Powell, performing a stunt himself, swings down to combat off-screen heavies in Chapter Two.
Fistfights only constitute about a third of the serial’s action sequences, however; there are also plenty of chases and shootouts on hand. The violent and comparatively large-scaled combat between a Marine squad and a gang of paramilitary bandits on Gehorda Island in Chapter Nine is especially memorable, as are the Chapter One chase through the Warfield grounds (ending in a fight on a lakeside cliff) and the Chapter Two chase sequence that has the heroes pursuing a phony ambulance as a thug tosses hand grenades at them through its rear doors. The car/motorcycle chase sequence through the Bronson Canyon area in Chapter Three is also excellent–although most of it–and all of the Bronson footage–is lifted from the earlier serial SOS Coast Guard.
Devil Dogs has little outdoor location footage not derived from other chapterplays like Coast Guard, Dick Tracy, or Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island; steel mills, harbors, and other settings that would in other 1930s Republics have been represented by the real thing are here depicted through process-screen shots. The studio did do some outdoor shooting (in the Lake Sherwood area) for the scenes on the Warfield estate and for the Gehorda Island scenes–which gives such sequences as Lee Powell’s overland trek through the Gehorda forests (dodging natives along the way) additional appeal, and keeps the serial from ever seeming too claustrophobic. Even without the Sherwood location shooting, however, Devil Dogs would have remained visually interesting, its camera work (as aforementioned) making even indoor scenes quite striking.
Above left: Lee Powell hides from hostile natives in one of the Gehorda sequences. Above right: Eleanor Stewart spots a prowler at the window of the Warfield mansion in one of those striking indoor shots.
The serial’s chapter endings feature plenty of footage-borrowing as well; the crushing-ships cliffhanger is from Dick Tracy, while the flaming ship, collapsing cave, and severed air-hose cliffhangers are all from Clipper Island (the latter ending is enhanced here, though, by being turned into a double cliffhanger, with Lee Powell drowning in his diving suit while Herman Brix–who’s dived in to rescue him–is attacked by a shark). The serial’s original chapter endings are some of Republic’s best, however; while few are spectacular, they’re memorably dramatic. Examples include Brix and Powell flying their plane into one of the Lightning’s torpedoes to save a dirigible, Powell’s hopeless rush to save his father–which results in his own apparent electrocution, and the unforgettable Chapter Seven ending in which Powell–about to pursue the Lightning after the villain’s nocturnal assassination of a captive henchman–turns just in time to see the black-clad menace rise from behind a nearby car and zap him with a handheld electric pistol (the resolution to this peril is clever and–surprisingly–scientifically sound). The exceptionally suspenseful Chapter Eleven ending is another highlight, with the trapped Powell successfully managing to snag the key of a chamber that’s filling with gas, only to have a villainous hand snatch it away just before he can drag it into the room.
The final episode shares the chapter endings’ dramatic staging, with a fruitless pursuit of the unmasked Lightning, the villain’s escape to his flying “wing,” and effective intercutting between the Lightning’s preparations for firing a torpedo and the heroes’ coolly desperate assembly of an untested machine that will hopefully be able to turn the torpedo’s destructive power back on itself. The Flying Wing, by the way, is used even more effectively here than in Dick Tracy (from which most of the shots of the Lydecker Brothers’ airship excellent miniature are lifted)–figuring not merely as the villains’ impressive airborne base, as in the earlier serial, but as the carrier of the Lightning’s deadly torpedoes, which gives the already sinister-looking aircraft an additionally ominous aura. The special effects in the torpedo attacks are extremely well-handled by the Lydeckers and the sound-effects team; they’re accompanied by a piercing, menacing electrical wail and by impressive showers of electrical sparks.
Lee Powell does a very good job in the serial’s leading role–making his character seem intelligent and confidently authoritative, but also giving him more than a touch of eager sincerity that approaches feverish excitability in some scenes–especially when he tries to save his men in Chapter One and is only stopped from meeting his own doom by Herman Brix; his despairing reaction as he helplessly watches the electrical destruction of his squad is convincing and moving, as is his reaction to his father’s similar fate. Brix’s co-hero characterization is also excellent, his low-key, level-headed demeanor contrasting well with Powell’s much tenser manner. Brix also handles both his dialogue and his facial acting with an underplayed thoughtfulness that makes him distinctive despite his definitely secondary role–two good examples being the understanding look he gives Powell at the funeral of the latter’s father and his wryly delivered “let ’em go” as he rubs his just-punched jaw after a fistfight with some heavies.
The attractive Eleanor Stewart–who delivers an appealingly enthusiastic performance–has comparatively little screen time, despite playing an ultimately pivotal role in the plot. White-haired Hugh Sothern, a noted character player in many A-films, is excellent as Stewart’s scientist father, his slow but gruffly self-assured speaking voice and rather Lincoln-like build giving him an imposing presence unusual in a serial scientist. Montagu Love–like Sothern, an A-list character actor–is also very good as Marine General White, reacting with soberly military concern to the fantastic threat of the Lightning. Perry Ivins is, by turns, furtive, pathetically cowardly, and suspiciously anxious to please as the timid scientist Crenshaw, the chief Lightning suspect; while he overacts at times, his characterization definitely has a bit more depth and individuality to it than most red-herring turns.
Forrest Taylor and Henry Otho are more stereotyped as the other red herrings–suavely dignified butler Benson and unassuming but shifty gardener Sam Hedges, respectively–but both carry off their parts with flair. John Picorri is outrageously but memorably hammy as the Lightning’s hunchbacked and obviously deranged lieutenant Professor Gould, stealing multiple scenes with his crazed, leering facial expressions and his delightedly ghoulish delivery of even the simplest lines. The Lightning’s other leading henchmen include Tom London, Edmund Cobb, Al Taylor, and Alan Gregg; Reed Howes, Carleton Young, Monte Montague, Allen Matthews, Jerry Frank, and John Merton also have heavy roles of varying sizes–Montague’s turn as an unhappy thug who squeals under the influence of truth serum being the most distinctive.
The Lightning himself is the first of the great serial masked villains–his black uniform, flowing cape, and crested helmet making him far more visually impressive than his many predecessors in Mascot’s serials, most of whom wore only cloaks or aviator’s goggles. Whether silently stalking his enemies or striding around his laboratory on the Wing, he cuts a truly memorable figure–actor Lester Dorr (who wears the costume) giving him further panache through frequent fist-clenching and other theatrical gestures. Unfortunately, the villain’s voice, provided by Edwin Stanley, doesn’t fully measure up to his appearance; Stanley’s harsh voice, while suitably arrogant and maniacal in tone, is too nasal to sound as menacing or commanding as it should. The part clearly called for a much deeper-voiced performer, like Robert Frazer or John Davidson; even Stanley Price–who does loop the Lightning’s lines in one scene–has a vocal pitch better suited to the role.
Davidson is on hand in the serial in a brief but good first-chapter bit as a nervous Chinese consul who is eliminated by the Lightning in one of the serial’s best scenes. The soft-spoken Sam Flint is also very good in his slightly more extended turn as Colonel Grayson, giving the character a likable combination of warmth and genteel dignity. Harry Strang plays the sergeant of the doomed Marine squad in the first chapter, while Bob Wilke can be briefly glimpsed as one of the enlisted men. Stuntmen George DeNormand and Tom Steele also pop up as Marines in later episodes, while Ed Cassidy appears as a ship captain, Lloyd Whitlock as a dirigible commander, and Jack Ingram as the dirigible’s radio operator.
Fighting Devil Dogs’ plotting is so strong, its visuals so memorable, and its suspenseful atmosphere so effectively thick that its overuse of stock footage and its lack of location filming ultimately constitute little more than minor flaws. The serial’s writing, direction, and special effects, along with its engaging lead performances and its larger-than-life villain, place it firmly among Republic’s greatest serials despite the penny-pinching that surrounded its production.